Use MRI for: Love and Limerence

LOVE, n.

LOVE, n. A temporary insanity curable by marriage or by removal of the patient from the influences under which he incurred the disorder.
[Ambrose Bierce, 1911]

Limerence describes an involuntary cognitive and emotional state of intense romantic desire for another person—in other words, romantic love. Researchers in New York have shown, using functional MRI, that in some human individuals being “in love” with a long-term partner is similar to early-stage romantic love. But perhaps not in the way you might think.

Staying in love—retaining limerence—is not a matter of obsession, craving and euphoria. The euphoria may be useful in emotional bonding at first; in this respect, Ambrose Bierce is on the money. Oscar Wilde seems to agree:

One should always be in love. That is the reason one should never marry.
[Oscar Wilde]

As Bierce and Wilde might have expected, activation in the nucleus accumbens—associated with craving and euphoria from other studies looking at response to cocaine—decreased in line with the number of years married.

So what about long term love? In long-term in-love individuals, activation in a different part of the brain was observed; the ventral tegmental area. This is an area associated with working for rewards, which also is activated in early-stage romantic love. In other words, romantic love can last. This area of the brain reflects positive reward prediction errors (reward unexpected and received).

The researchers go on to suggest that this activation may be a novelty signal; that part of maintaining the romantic love feeling is the maintenance of a novelty response to the partner.

But you and every Agony Aunt knew this already, right? Keep things fresh. Get out of routine. Now confirmed with fMRI.
Acevedo et al. Program No. 297.10/TT28. Society for Neuroscience annual meeting, 2008.
Acevedo and Aron, Rev. Gen. Psy. 13(1), Mar 2009, 59-65.
Aron et al, J Neurophysiol 94: 327-337, 2005.
Read more here.